Jan 19, 2010
Jewish Library in Vilnius
A Guest Post by Wyman Brent, aka @JewishLibrary
After many setbacks, things appear to be heading in the right direction. There have been meetings this week with people with influence over the process of the library. One is Aage Myhre who is director of Vilnius International House. He is Norwegian and has lived in Lithuania since 1990. He is not Jewish but very interested in seeing the library become reality. There are now some real players involved. Three of them are members of Parliament. Another is the director of all libraries in Lithuania. Another is Professor Dovid Katz who teaches at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Another is Rachel Kostanian. She is deputy director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. She is also a Shoah survivor.
Yesterday, I was able to see for the first time the space which will hopefully house the library. This is not the permanent location but it will be more than suitable for two or three years. The place is directly across the street from the Parliament and the National Library buildings. Both can be seen from the front windows of the proposed library. There is room for concerts, lectures, and offices. I say not permanent because eventually the collection will outgrow those rooms. However, it is a beautiful and fitting location in which to begin.
After years of work, I feel like I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is one thing which still needs to be done. The Prime Minister is the one which will have the final decision in this matter. I was told the best way to influence things in a positive manner is to receive letters of support for the Vilnius Jewish Library. The letters need to be actually mailed as opposed to being sent by email. I am reaching out to you and to anyone you know in getting out those letters. The letters can be printed out or hand written but all must be signed and there must be somewhere their name printed so it can actually be read. If a person is uncomfortable in providing a home address, they are very welcome to use a P.O. Box or business address. This is not a call for donations of money or materials. They do not need to send money. All that is needed now are those letters. Something simple along the lines of one or two paragraphs will be sufficient. People can write whatever they like. I just ask that it be along positive lines and not accusing the Lithuanian government of not doing enough for the Jews. Please write all letters to Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. Time is of the essence here. Below is the address to which to send all letters. Feel free to forward this email and/or my contact details to anyone you choose. While letters from Rabbis are very welcome, each and every letter from whomever will look good as we make the case for a new center of Jewish culture and learning in the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
P.S. Letters from Gentiles who are interested are also welcome. Below is the mission statement. There are also some links in regard to the library.
The purpose of the Vilnius Jewish Library is to help strengthen Jewish culture in the Jerusalem of Lithuania. There were more than 100 synagogues and prayerhouses in Vilnius before the war. There was also the YIVO Institute which did so much to promote knowledge and education. Now there is one functioning synagogue here and, YIVO has moved its operations to the USA. Since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, there has not been a proper center of Jewish culture.
Another focus of the library is to promote tolerance and understanding. There remains lingering anti-Semitism which is visible in the national media and within the Lithuanian government. The idea is to create a center which puts the spotlight not just on Jewish religion and culture but also upon the amazing accomplishments of Jews throughout history.
The question is how to accomplish these lofty goals. To open a library in which all the books are in Hebrew and Yiddish is to guarantee failure. There is a small Jewish population in Vilnius. The purpose is not to convince Jews of the special nature of Judaism and Jewish culture. I am hopeful that they already know. So what will be done to guarantee the success of a Jewish library where there are not many Jews?
1. Have approximately 100,000 books in English written by any Jewish author on any topic, both fiction and non-fiction. This will guarantee that there is the widest possible range of books. That means that everyone who will walk through the door will find something which appeals to them.
2. Keep in mind that English is not the first language of Lithuanians. To help with reading comprehension, the library will be stocked with around 20,000 dictionaries and encyclopedias. Any reader who has trouble understanding a word or concept found in a book will have access to dictionaries covering everything from archaeology to zoology. In addition, there will be CDs and DVDs designed specifically to help students learn English. With a large collection of everything from children's books to the most scholarly, there will be something for every reading level.
3. Many believe that the time of libraries is past. After all, there are satellite dishes for television and high speed internet for computers. To draw people into the library, there will also be a big collection of CDs and DVDs. The music CDs will cover everything from the Beastie Boys to KISS to Streisand to Gershwin, Mahler, and the Klezmatics. This will be another way to highlight the significant contributions which Jews have made to popular culture. As for the DVDs, every Jewish library should have a copy of Schindler's List directed by Stephen Spielberg. However, since Spielberg is Jewish, I also will have Jurassic Park and Jaws. Harrison Ford is Jewish so there will be Star Wars included as well as any Ben Stiller film. Yes, there will be serious documentaries as well as thoughtful films made about the Shoah. The incredible variety of books, CDs, and DVDs is to show to the world the incredible breadth and depth of Jewish life and culture. I believe this is something which has never been attempted beneath one roof.
4. If all that is not seen as enough to bring them in, there is far more than that to attract visitors. Each night I plan to offer different events. There will be poetry readings, concerts, lectures, art exhibtions, as well as film nights. These events can be done by any person for any reason. The creator need not be Jewish and what they are doing need not have any Jewish connection. The idea behind this is that it will get people in the door who might not have otherwise considered visiting a Jewish library. Once through the door, they will be able to see for themselves the incredible array of material available to them. If everything mentioned so far seems still inadequate to bring them in, there will also be a cafe offering coffee, tea, and snacks.
It is one thing to open a Jewish library in a city where there are large numbers of Jews. This is not London or New York or Tel Aviv. This is Vilna which was the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Many will say that the time for Jewish culture in Lithuania is past. They will argue that all the Jews still here should move to Israel. I believe that the Jews here feel the same as I do. First, this is their home which nobody can deprive them of. Second, is that for Jewish culture to die in Lithuania is to provide a posthumous victory for the nazis. I will do all in my power to promote Jewish culture in Lithuania for as long as I am able.
Vilnius Jewish Library
Ausros Vartu 20-15A